It is difficult to imagine anthropology in the time of Covid-19. In a discipline where ethnographic field research, what Clifford Geertz (1998), drawing on the work of James Clifford, refers to as “deep hanging out,” is the primary methodology, a Covid-19 landscape in which in-person human subjects research is both prohibited and unethical presents a particularly tough set of challenges. When you cannot physically be with people, when you cannot travel to the site of your research either in the US or abroad, when you cannot share in the experiences of everyday life, cannot ride on motorbikes together or sit elbow to elbow at a tiny restaurant, cannot grasp another’s arm as they pour water for deceased loved ones in the soft early morning light or break the fast with a community meal, where relatives and friends come from several households to sit together on the slanted wooden floor and bend low over plates of jasmine rice and fried fish, how can you “do” anthropology?
For some, the answer to this question has meant shifting online, re-making projects in terms of digital ethnography, a move that I have also made, albeit only partially, as my own research on the everyday character of inter-communal relations in Thailand, in which I trace the microsociological and micropolitical dynamics of conflict and religious tension through daily life, through interactions in the markets, in workplaces, and homes, necessitates the kind of “deep hanging out” that Geertz proposes. Unwilling to shift away from the everyday lived experiences of research collaborators and participants, from the stories they whisper across desks or utter into the calm evening air as they gently rock grandchildren to sleep, continuing my research in the Covid-19 landscape has meant, instead, re-formulating my doctoral dissertation timeline. Rather than beginning my long-term ethnographic fieldwork this summer, I have had to reshuffle the order of my work, to tackle those pieces of my research that I can do, safely and ethically, now, to reimagine the boundaries of participant observation and the physical closeness that ethnography often necessitates.
With the generous support of the Amnuay-Samonsri Viravan Endowment for Thai Studies housed at the University of Michigan, I have focused my attention this summer on the methodical work of organizing field notes and transcribing interviews from my preliminary field research in the Phang Nga province of Thailand, as well as reading the locally written Thai-language historical sources that I gathered in 2019 and sifting through the National Library of Thailand’s digitized historic newspaper collection for pieces on the south. Currently, I am working on transcribing an interview with a former colleague about her marriage across religions and reading through a locally compiled history of Islam in Phang Nga, which addresses various waves of Muslim migration to the province, the founding of several Phang Nga communities, and the role of Muslims in shaping the resource-rich region’s development. Though not exactly how I anticipated spending this summer, it is my hope that this work of reflecting, of re-organizing, and transcribing will add texture and complexity to my future ethnographic fieldwork.
Selina Makana (2018), in her work on feminist ethnography, writes about the “ebb and flow of fieldwork research” (p. 364), or the subtle shifts in fieldwork interactions, relationships, and situations. In a way, the Covid-19 research landscape can also be understood through this framework of “ebb and flow.” While the current international context has prevented me from beginning the in-person research that my project requires, from engaging in the everyday routines of ethnographic fieldwork in the traditional sense, it doesn’t mean that I cannot “do” anthropology. Rather, doing anthropology can mean following the flow of your own work, allowing your research to push out against the narrowly defined research timeline of fieldwork followed by analysis. For me, now, this is a period of ebbing, a period of retreating back to the notes and interviews that I had previously gathered and working through them, slowly and painstakingly, to better understand them in their full complexity. It is a period of taking a second to linger more deeply on a heavy sigh in an interview or the sudden switch in tone and pace, from easy conversation to hurried speech, of pausing to re-listen, re-hear, re-learn the diverse stories, histories, and voices of Phang Nga community members and how they make sense of their plural landscape and the myriad ways of living together in shared space and time. Now is a time for reflecting on what anthropology can mean and for reimagining ethnography in a way that incorporates multiple research temporalities, innovative forms of participant observation, and moments of intimate reflection. Now is a time for ebbing, for a different kind of flow.
Geertz, Clifford. (1998, October 22). Deep Hanging Out. New York Review of Books. https://www-nybooks-com.proxy.lib.umich.edu/articles/1998/10/22/deep-hanging-out/
Makana, Selina. (2018). “Contested Encounters: Toward a Twenty-First-Century African Feminist Ethnography.” Meridians: Feminism, race, transnationalism, 17(2), 361 – 375.